Writing Your Baby’s Synthetic Genome: Genetic Engineering for the Facebook Generation

Posted by Daniel Sharp March 22, 2012
Biopolitical Times
In the 1990s, leading personae including Nobel Prize winner James Watson, Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver, and UCLA “life science entrepreneur and visionary” Gregory Stock all championed the dream of engineering the perfect human being.  

That frightening techno-eugenic vision is now being “upgraded” for the digital generation. The ideological project of genetically “enhanced” post-humans appears to be reemerging – this time with a synthetic biology twist.

Enter Andrew Hessel of Singularity U, for whom genetic engineering and the human genome project are “so 1990.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Hessel proposed a radical – and disturbing – idea:
[I]t's time to consider a new grand challenge for genetics, one that captures the public interest. I can think of none grander than an international effort to write a human genome.
Let’s pause and reflect about what Hessel is proposing. Writing a human genome entails nothing less than designing a human being. This would of course be extremely problematic: technical implausibility aside, it’s an inherently eugenic undertaking, which necessarily involves selecting for genetically-encoded traits and deselecting for others. Read in this light, Hessel’s seemingly benign scientific provocation is far from innocent.

Hessel’s weapon of choice for designing a better human is synthetic biology.  He hails his hypothetical effort to write a human genome as synthetic biology’s “proof of concept” par excellence, equating building a “better” human with a bizarre technical game:
A technical challenge, validated by showing the synthetic genome is functional if microinjected into a cultured cell.

While Hessel seems to acknowledge the controversial nature of his proposal, he suggests that the any problem it might pose is merely a technical obstacle to be overcome: "What I'm definitely not suggesting is growing a baby from a synthetic genome," he writes. "Before we can fly, we need to be able to walk."

Scratch the surface and Hessel’s point is clear: There is nothing wrong with designing humans; we simply have to work out the technical kinks (“learn to walk”) first.  

Elsewhere, Hessel remarks that synthetic humans are not far off: “Synthetic biology advances could see engineered humans being booted up in a few decades.”  

Hessel is not alone among synthetic biologists who are subtly or not so subtly retooling the old eugenic dream of genetic engineering.

In a New Yorker article, leading synthetic biologist Drew Endy suggested that it might soon be possible to “liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring.” Just down the road at Harvard, synthetic biology pioneer George Church stated that he “doesn't rule out the possibility of rewiring the genome of a human embryo to be virus-proof.”

While the essential social and moral problems remain the same, the challenges for progressives posed by synthetic biology may exceed those posed by older genetic engineering technologies for at least two reasons, one technical and the other cultural.  

First, synthetic biology technologies, though still in their nascence, may become much more powerful tools than older genetic engineering techniques. At least in principle, synthetic biology provides scientists the ability not only to tweak the traits of a bacterium, but to make new ones and design whole genomes.  This accelerates and magnifies the dangers already latent in genetic engineering.

Second, synthetic biology has been billed as “genetic engineering for the Facebook generation,” a cool, hip new science targeted towards digitally savvy youth.  This new ideology pegs synthetic biology as sleek and edgy artistic “design,” an empowering “DIY movement,” the newest internet fad. Synthetic engineering, writes Hessel, can “all be done with computer software” from “any old coffee shop.” This depoliticizing narrative is a clever way of deflecting the serious ethical and political questions that need to be asked about this extremely dangerous field.

While the prospect of writing the human genome strikes Hessel as all but inevitable – “Eventually, someone has to,” he writes – the future of synthetic biology is in fact still up for grabs. In recent months, synthetic biology has met growing dissent and rising worries from progressive organizations and policy think-tanks alike. Rather than writing the genomes of our children, it’s time for progressives to write an alternative, non-eugenic future and make the case against designer babies and other misuses of powerful technologies that pose grave physical and social threats.

Previously on Biopolitical Times